Two Dystopias: “Voltaire’s Bastards” and “Paris in the Twentieth Century”

I’ve told this story before:

. . . . I recalled a brief exchange, one of many conversations we shared over clattering golf clubs.  These words came shortly after my reading crossed a very special threshold:

“Dr. Crowther, do you find that the more you read the more everything seems to connect together?”

Dr. Crowther held her golf bag still and looked at me.

“Oh, yes, John!”

When one reads a lot and widely, the connections come fast and furious.  Now and then, when one is, like me, a reader who always have a dozen books on the go, the connections appear unexpectedly between two books one is currently reading.  This pleasant surprise has happened to me recently.

In 1989, Jules Verne’s great-grandson discovered the manuscript of an unknown novel by his famous ancestor.  Paris in the Twentieth Century was published in French in 1994. Shortly after it was published in 1996, I bought Richard Howard’s English version, read it as a curiosity, and set it aside, largely forgotten save for its title.

That title, however, has stuck in my mind for almost two decades as the kernel of an art project I have finally started concrete work on.  As I began preliminary sketches, I realized I should probably reread the novel whose title had been rolling around in my mind so long.

Two years before Verne’s lost novel was published, John Ralston Saul published the sweeping yet remarkably readable study of modern Western society and it’s history, Voltaire’s Bastards.  Somehow, it took me two decades to get to it.  And, somehow, I found myself reading Voltaire’s Bastards with Paris in the Twentieth Century as its tag-team partner.

So, 19th century French science fiction writer and 20th century Canadian philosopher. Two hundred page dystopian novel and six hundred page carefully researched (I’ll ignore the little Frankenstein error) philosophical study of western social history since the Renaissance.

What’s the connection?

Just this: Verne and Saul describe virtually identically structured societies, although the details are, inevitably, different.

As I remember, the marketing of Verne’s novel in North America concentrated on the Gosh! Wow! factor of his predictions.  This emphasis is evident in the blurb’s on the back of the paperback.  People Magazine is quoted about the “overcrowded metropolis”, the homeless, and automobiles.  And elevators and fax machines.  Of course, when we really think about it, none of these predictions were that unpredictable.  Indeed, Paris in Verne’s time was far from sparsely populated or free from the homeless.  In fact, Verne’s technological predictions are minor details of the novel.  Ray Bradbury, as quoted on the paperback, is perfectly correct that Paris in the Twentieth Century is “an absolute necessity” for those interested in the history of Speculative Fiction.  But Verne’s novel, hidden until just twenty years ago, has not been at all an influence — it was unknown.  Its science fiction interest is purely antiquarian and its technological prophecy is modest.

Of another kind of interest — again antiquarian — is Verne’s predictions about the shape of Western society in the second half of the Twentieth century.  It is here that Verne is startlingly on the money, and on the money to a degree made clear by a reading of Voltaire’s Bastards.

Voltaire’s Bastards is a challenging book, not because of its size — it is stunningly artful and, as I mentioned, readable — and not because its arguments are complicated — Saul is conversational, straight-forward, and eminently sensible.  I took thirty-seven pages of notes while reading  Voltaire’s Bastards — not as a chore, but because Saul’s points are so darn well taken and so worth remembering. What is challenging about Voltaire’s Bastards is that it challenges almost everything you think you know about Western Society and its historical underpinnings.  If you read Voltaire’s Bastards well, you will be changed, the scales may just fall off your eyes, you may just have taken Morpheus’ Red Pill.  But it probably won’t make you feel too happy.

The world Saul delineates — our world — is a society run by administrators of a system — technocrats.  The System, either the perpetuation of it or personal advancement within it, is the ultimate reason for every decision.  The bottom line is always the bottom line.  Saul is emphatic that all the social -isms — Fascism, Communism, and so on — are “dialects” of the single language of “Reason” that has ruled the West with ever growing strength since the Renaissance.  Art and literature are no longer about pursuit of beauty or social engagement.  Rather, artists and writers have become technocrats within their own branch of the system.  Saul argues that everything in Western society is directed at sustaining the system rather than toward the well-being of the people trapped within it.  When one considers, as Saul does at length, the obscene waste of money spent on arms in the modern world, one can’t help but conclude that most of Voltaire’s Bastards is filling in the details.

Verne’s Twentieth Century Paris is drawn with less detail — it’s a novel, after all, concerned with character and the personal impact of Verne’s future, not with the minutia of that culture.  Verne concentrates principally on the arts in his future.  And the state of the arts is disturbing.  All art is absolutely dismissed from 1960 Paris unless it has been turned to the purposes of applied science, technology or finance.  Great drama of the past is rewritten to conform by assembly lines of dramatists, each specializing in a type of scene.  Symphonies are written to commemorate great chemical experiments.  The languages of the past have been abandoned, poets are out of print, universities have become the “Academic Credit Union” which now teaches only science and business.  The language itself is changing into a collection of jargon.  I’m afraid I see too much of Verne’s Paris 1960 in the 21st Century world, not least in the fact that most universities have become mildly glorified vocational colleges producing technocrats in their bloated business schools, defunding “frills” such as the humanities, and turning students’ minds to “this is how” and away from “let’s ask why?”

Saul ends his book referring back to Rome through Voltaire, calling for “sensis communis”, a true, old common sense, a sensibility which relies on questioning, including self-questioning.  Saul is calling for the embracing of dissent, of kicking at the traces of all that we do without thinking.

Verne’s protagonist, Michel, is just such a dissident in 20th century Paris, a poet in a world with no use for true poetry.  He is unable to live the life of the system drone, and, in the end, is crushed by that system and its failure.  Verne’s vision of the future is a brutal dystopia a hundred years ahead of, and so more prescient perhaps than Orwell’s.

Disturbing is the uncanny resemblance of Verne’s fictional dystopian Paris to our own society as Saul exposes it.  Here, all decision is administration, fundamental doubt or questioning is either ridiculed or impossible to consider, and the corporate model is applied to all aspects of life, including the life of the individual.  Can anyone really deny that today “public good” means not increasing individual well-being but “economic growth” and “economic growth” means “maximized profit and maximized GDP”.  As Saul writes on p. 74:

In other words, reason equals structure equalls happiness and that is freedom.

What both Verne and Saul point out is that technology and systems administration are dehumanizing when accepted without questioning and doubt.  Absolute reliance on “Reason” leads to failure followed by ever thicker layers of “reasonable” systems.  Not only are doubts and questioning the only route to discovery and invention, but only the flexibility doubt brings us, indeed, sometimes only panic gives us what we may need to see and solve a crisis.  In the closing chapter of Verne’s novel, a killing winter descends on Europe.  The administrative State’s efforts to help the poor are ineffective and “Scientific resources were impotent.” (p. 196)  But “Public charity did somewhat more.” (p. 197)  Only individualParisians operating from their hearts can help their fellows where scientific management has failed them.

A good portion of Voltaire’s Bastards is devoted to pointing out the failures of scientific management in the real 20th century.  Saul is very careful to explain that the system our technocrats manage, whatever the -ism they labour under, is the hopeless idea that human society can be managed by rational means alone:

Perhaps the most damaging part of our obsession with expertise and systems has been the restructuring of elected assemblies to make them more efficient.  This equation of the idea of efficiency . . . with the process of democracy shows just how far away we have slipped from our common sense. (p.28)

[Professional managers] have been free to apply the theory of unfettered capitalism as if it were a perfectible abstraction, not a human reality. (p. 29)

These technocrats Saul describes are the identical twins of the horrid, joyless cyphers who labour to no real human purpose in Verne’s 20th Century Paris:

“A hundred times over,” Jacques opined. “This world is nothing more than a market, an immense fairground, and you must entertain your clients with the talents of a mountebank.” (p. 78)

In his novel, Vern concerns himself principally with the life of his poet protagonist, Michel, and with Michel’s writer and musician friends, the hardship of their lives under the Parisian technocracy.  In Paris, poetry is moribund, just as, Saul argues, it is passé in our society.  Poetry has led the charge into obscurantism, followed closely by the “serious” novel, Saul argues.  If Byron were alive today, he would be a rock star, Saul writes (p. 610), lamenting the disengagement of the poet and the common folk.  Of course, in the early ’90s, Leonard Cohen had not yet resurged to the stadium-filling rock star poet he is today.  And I expect Saul would find hope in the remarkable engagement and popularity of Canadian spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan.  Perhaps Cohen and Koyczan are exceptions that proves  Saul’s point.  “Serious” writers, Saul argues, no longer engage with society at large.  In contrast, Verne anticipates a society which no longer engages with its poets.  But, is it not a two way street?  How long will a poet be a voice in the wilderness before she either caves and writes what sells, or, on the other side, starves in a garret, or freezes in a cemetery above Paris?

Both Verne and Saul describe a world which has lost human meaning, in which individuals carry on within the system they’ve inherited, unquestioning, never imagining the possibility of a different way, let alone a better one, deriving little joy from their petty advancements.  Verne’s novel is disturbing because it is at once absurd and prescient.   Such a society in fiction seems impossible, but our own society is a pea in the same pod.  Saul’s sensibly argued examination is terrifying because he is brutally correct.  Modern society is an organism which serves only its meaningless self, not the humans who service it and are indifferently sloughed like so many skin cells or fingernail clippings.

A technocratic, systematic society always has answers, whether or not those answers are helpful.  But, as Saul concludes of societies such as ours

If the Socratic question can still be asked, it is certainly not rational. Voltaire pointed out that for the Romans, sensus communis meant common sense but also humanity and sensibility.  It has been reduced to only good sense, “a state half-way between stupidity and intelligence.” We have since reduced it still farther, as if appropriate only for manual labour and the education of small children.  That is the narrowing effect of a civilization which seeks automatically to divide through answers when our desperate need is to unify the individual through questions. (p. 630)

John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards is published by Penguin Books.

Richard Howard’s English translation of Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is available in paperback from Del Rey Books.

Now I think I’ll reread Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Hasty notes on Elsipotog, Rex Murphy, and Hope

I love Canada.  I love Canadians.  I love Canada’s fairly recently developed culture of tolerance and multiculturalism.  I love that, as Chris Hadfield says,

Canada has solved the riddle of how to set up civilization better than just about any country on Earth. (Maclean’s Magazine, October 14, 2013, p. 14)

I love the fact that, as Melissa Fung quotes former Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ron Hoffman,

Girls not being able to go to school, music not able to be played, women not being able to work. These [are] anathema to Canadians.
(The Walrus, October 2013, p. 104)

And I really love the fact that, as a general rule, in the words of Rex Murphy in the National Post

Most Canadians, genuinely, and in depth, wish better for their co-citizens, are not just open, but intensely eager to the right thing by them and with them — if only one or many right things can be seen and finally agreed upon.

But, I have a nagging problem with Canada and Canadians, and Mr. Murphy unwittingly highlighted it in his piece.  Most immediately troubling is that Murphy ignores the fact that when the RCMP launched its paramilitary action against Elsipogtog, meetings were ongoing in hopes that “one or many right things can be seen and finally agreed upon.”  At best, this was a demonstration of Canada’s hamfistedness.  At worst, it was simply bad faith.

Of deeper concern to me, however, is that Murphy, like too many Canadians, is quick to draw a bold line between “Now” and “the Canadian past,” and ” not to acknowledge that, further, not to act on the great benign difference between the two, is willful blindness and reckless distortion.”  Murphy is quick to condemn (and inflate) alleged molotov cocktails, shots and vehicle torchings, to ignore the present day reasons for such incidents, and to pretend that present government generosity when confronted with an emergency or crisis somehow negates the present day legacy of “the Canadian past”.  This is nothing other than denial of history, recent history as well as that old history of a generation or two ago.  A generation or two ago, aboriginal Canadians had their lives controlled by the Indian Agent.  A generation or two ago, Rex Murphy was a student at Oxford, tuition paid by the founder of White Rhodesia.  “The Canadian past” is uncomfortably close.

But, if I may mention, what I find most troubling, offensive and egregiously in error is Murphy’s dismissal of suggestions that Canada’s actions constitute “genocide”.  This umbrage taken is far more absurd than Turkish upset over laying the Armenian Genocide at the feet of present day Turkey.  At least Turks can claim their state is not the Ottoman Empire.  Today’s Russians can blame the vanished Soviet state for the Holdomor.  Even modern Germans can with some legitimacy claim that their state didn’t light the Holocaust.

But Canada is still the same state that vowed to kill the Indian in the Child.  Canada is still the state that was model to South African Apartheid.  And, as I’ve explained elsewhere, Canada’s actions in the Residential Schools are incontrovertibly acts of Genocide under International and Canadian law.

The fact that, like Murphy, most Canadians dismiss this crime is something I very much dislike about my country and its people.

Murphy talks about the high regard the majority of Canadians have for aboriginal peoples.  But, just a few days before the events in Elsipogtog to which Murphy responds, the Governor General, in the Speech from the Throne, referred to “our aboriginal people” while the Quebecois were simply “The Quebecois”. No paternalism. No Colonialism. No subtle reminder of 1759.  But the First People are verbally placed just a rhetorical step away from “Queen Victoria’s  Red Children”.  In the Speech from the Throne!

There is a duality in Canada’s and Canadians’ attitude to the original people of this land.  They have an honoured place as a sort of absent myth, but when they are actually met, face to face or in the news, they are drunks, bums, and ungrateful leeches.  The honour evaporates whether the aboriginal person encountered is a great artist, an urban working woman, or an actual down and out fellow at a soup kitchen (where most of the clients are White, by the way).  A White man lying in the gutter may be a damn drunk, a dirty panhandler, but he’s also “down on his luck”. A native man in the gutter, whether Metis, Inuk, Innu or First Nations, is “another drunk Indian.”

What Murphy points out most clearly to me, although he doesn’t seem to mean to, is that Canadians are very adept at holding two contradictory images of the aboriginal person, but they are unable to reconcile them.  If the native person they meet doesn’t fit (and accept with gratitude) the mythic image, or at least try, he’s an ungrateful pawn of the academic (probably Marxist) ethnic-victim game and probably drunk and ready to set fire to a police car.  Murphy seems unaware that there are huge numbers of urban, educated, employed, working class, ordinary tax-paying aboriginal and non-aboriginal supporters of Elsipogtog and Idle No More who really don’t want to see anyone hurt.  They just want their fellow Canadians, including you, Rex, to recognize that there are actual, real, legal issues here that cut to the complicated, ugly and beautiful heart of our nation.

Many, maybe most non-aboriginal Canadians haven’t a clue about their aboriginal brothers and sisters, about history or legality.  Do they need to? Really? Maybe not. But what they need to know is a person. An individual.

All white Canadians know a white Canadian they like or admire.  That one individual makes the countless White crooks, bums, television talking heads and politicians somehow tolerable.  White people have absolutely no problem accepting the existence of White people who commit the most heinous of crimes without deciding that White people are an irredeemable horde of genetically criminal miscreants.  But, somehow, it’s possible to suggest in polite company or even during an election campaign, that aboriginal people have a genetic addiction to drugs.  This bigotry comes from ignorance bread of a cultural apartheid.  Most non-aboriginal Canadians have an acculturated blindness to all actual native Canadians except the mythical ones and the down and out.

I find hope in the fact that it is possible to see the obscene, ignorant bigotry directed against aboriginal people, including Rex Murphy’s shameful condescension, and still realize that White people have good ideas, do good things, live fine helpful lives and make the world a better place.

Just like the people of Elsipotog.

I find hope in the fact that far more meeting, talking, teaching and learning is going on between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians than fighting.

My hope comes from the certainty that as they learn and lose their blinders, most people will come to realize that the vast majority of people around them, for all their flaws and errors, have their hearts in the right place.

Mr. Murphy, too.

A small point about taxation as it relates to the Edmonton municipal election, 2013

Recently I took issue with a statement made by a candidate for mayor in Edmonton’s present election. Criticizing another candidate, she claimed on her blog:

“He says a consumption tax like GST which hits everyone—including seniors and low-income families—is better for Edmonton than a property [tax] which only touches property owners and leaves renters and low-income earners”

Frankly, being myself perhaps something of an odd fellow — a low-income earner and a property owner — I was shocked by Ms Leibovici’s apparent lack of understanding of taxes in Canada.  I will explain.

First, she claims that the GST “hits everyone—including seniors and low-income families”. While true that with the vast majority of purchases, everyone makes a deposit on the GST, for low-income earners that deposit is wholy or partly refundable, the refund indexed to  income.  From the Canada Revenue Agency:

“The GST/HST credit is a tax-free quarterly payment that helps individuals and families with low or modest incomes offset all or part of the GST or HST that they pay.”

The clear fact is that the GST does not hit everyone regardless of ability to pay, contrary to Ms Leibovici’s first claim.

Second she claims that property tax “only touches property owners and leaves renters and low-income earners”.  This claim strikes me as patently absurd.  While some small rental property owners may not carefully enter property taxes into the expense side of their ledger, the taxes are paid, presumable out of the income provided by the renter’s payments.  Furthermore, if a rental management company failed to list something as obvious as property tax as an expense against rental income, I, for one, would not want to be a shareholder in such an incompetent management company.

As an impartial comment, here’s what Statistics Canada has to say:

” Homeowners pay property tax directly to their local government whereas renters pay through their rent. . . .

Since property taxes are not directly related to the ability to pay, they may be a particular burden for some. . . .”

So, there you have it.  Property tax impacts all while the burden of GST is lightened for low-income families by predictable quarterly credit cheques, the direct opposite of the claims made by Ms Leibovici.  I trust that low-income earners understand where their hard-earned dollars go and how much is returned through refunds and credits.  I also have no doubt that low-income renters feel that they are just as much tax payers — just as much impacted — just as much contributors to Edmonton’s civic fabric — as their wealthier neighbours.

I’m thinking now of my friend Angus, now gone to his greater reward (as my father would say). Angus was a Loyal Eddy, veteran of Ortona, widower, homeowner.  Angus lived on a fixed, low income. Angus payed GST and got quarterly credit cheques indexed to his income. Angus paid property tax regardless of his income as a retired, veteran, widower senior.  Angus and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of other low-income earning Edmontonians – seniors and otherwise, property owners and otherwise – put the lie to Ms Leibovici’s claim that the GST is indiscriminate and property taxes only affect rich property owners.

I worry when a candidate, either out of ignorance or out of an appeal to perceived voter ignorance, makes such erroneous claims about taxation during an election campaign.

Tibullus’ First Elegy

Below is a translation of the first elegy of Tibullus I made partly in Watford, England in the summer of 1983 and partly at home some point thereafter.   The first part of the poem I translated was a passage near the end, which I scrawled that summer on the rear fly-leaf of the Loeb edition I had just bought in Cambridge:


A few days ago (October, 2013) I retouched a few youthful oversights.  I submitted the earlier version to a short-lived 1980s Edmonton literary journal which had published two other poems of mine.  Unfortunately, that journal ceased publication around the time of my submission.   So, this translation has been pretty much unseen since its creation thirty years ago, rattling about first as scraps of paper and then copied from one hard drive to another.

Recently I have returned to translating the Elegies of Tibullus as a bit of a recreational break from the ongoing labour of translating the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records.

Another man may store up gold
as comfort to himself
and he may hold some many yards
of cultivated soil:
that man is scared and labour’s hard
with enemies nearby–
and from that man all sleep will flee
when Martial horns are blown.
But may my poorness carry me
along the lazy road
while yet a bright and warming fire
glows on my humble hearth
and may I be a rustic true
and plant young vines for wine
and large fruit trees with careful hands
at just the proper time.
And may hope not abandon me
but always give to me
a heap of crops and vats of must,
aging into wine.
In fields at stumps I say my prayers
or at a flower wrapped stone;
whatever fruits the new year brings
I place for rural gods.
O Yellow Ceres, may the wreath
of grains of our farmland
which hangs before your temple’s doors
always hang for you
and may the guardian of our fruit
be placed out in the field
that he might frighten stealing birds,
Priapus with his hook.
And you, too, Lares, take your gifts,
you guardians of this field
wealthy once but now quite poor
without fertility.
Then a heifer sacrificed
a thousand bullocks paid;
a small lamb now is victim for
a narrow patch of soil.
For you a lamb is now cut down
and ’round it rustic youths
sing out “give harvests and good wine”
and bravely cheer with joy.
And now for me it I might be
content to live with less
and not to always be forced out
to labour on long roads;
t’avoid the summer rising of
the dog-star’s scorching heat
beneath the shade of leafy trees
beside a river’s flow.
And meantime it is no disgrace
to hold a two-toothed hoe
or goad the tardy mooing cows
back to their tiny pens
nor to hold up to my breast
a lamb or baby goat
forgotten and deserted by
the doe and take it home.
And spare, you wolves and crafty thieves
these thinning herds of mine;
go seek your prey from bigger herds
of richer men than I.
From this small herd and from my field
I’m used to sacrifice
and sprinkle milk once every year
to calm fair Pales’ heart.
Be with me gods and do not spurn
gifts from a table poor
nor from plain pots of earthen-ware
made in ancient time.
Of earthen-ware in ancient times
country men first made
themselves such cups of simple clay
without a wheel or kiln.
I do not need my father’s wealth
which stored-up harvest brought
to my grandsire so long ago;
a small field is enough.
Enough it is to rest my limbs
when I have got the time
upon my couch and sleep again
on my familiar cot.
How fine it is to hear the winds
as I lie in my bed
my mistress held in gentle clasp
close to my happy heart
or, when the wind from out the south
lets go the winter showers,
to seek untroubled happy sleep,
the rain my lullaby.
This be my lot.  Let him be rich
if he can bear the sea
with all it’s rage; deservedly
if he can bear the rains.
I wish that just as much of gold,
as many emeralds green
would perish, as fair maidens weep
if I should travel wide.
For you Massalla war is good,
by land as well by sea,
that you might hang some foriegn spoils
on th’front door of your home.
But I am held by a lovely girl
I’m wrapped up in her chains
and so I sit, a door keeper
outside this cruel gate.
I do not care, my Delia
to win myself some praise;
If I’m with you I would be called
a lazy sluggish man.
That I might see at my last hour
you, looking down at me
and hold you close as I sink down
in final dying clasp!
You will mourn, my Delia
When I lie on my bier
and give me kisses that are mixed
with bitter tears of grief.
You will mourn:  your breast’s not bound
with bands of iron strong
nor does cold flint lie stubbornly
within your tender heart.
Dry-eyed no youth or girl can come
home from that funeral day.
Don’t wound my ghost.  But little rip
young hair and cheeks, Delia.
Meantime, while fates let us do so
let’s join ourselves in love:
soon Death will come, take us away
his head in darkened cowl;
soon idle age will creep to us
and love will not look good,
and grey-haired talk of love
does not become a man.
Light Venus now must be pursued,
when breaking down of doors
and having fun will bring no shame
and fighting in the streets.
Thus do I well the part of duke
and that of man of war;
you trumps and standards go away
and take those wounds with you
and give them to those men of greed
and take to them riches:
I’ll be secure with harvest heaped,
Hate famine just like wealth.

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Tibullus’ First Elegy (translation) by John Richardson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.